There really is nothing innovative about The Perks of Being a Wallflower, not least because the book by Stephen Chbosky, who also penned the movie’s screenplay, has been a major influence on teen culture over the past decade. The film is filled with a lot of the sensibilities that have come to define the contemporary indie movie — the well-curated soundtrack, the pop culture references, the quirky, off-beat characters who are too cool for their own good. But I guess that its precisely the tonal perfection that makes this movie a precious, endearing thing to behold, even if it might attract some derision from people who would find it too cloying and “white”.
Enter Charlie (Logan Lerman), a loner freshman with a tormented past who has a hard time fitting into the social hierarchies of high school. He belongs in the same league as Cady from Mean Girls and Oliver from Submarine, the type of kids for whom finding a lunch table in the cafeteria is a Herculean task and whose curiously insightful thoughts are transmitted to us by way of overhead narration. He’s the titular wallflower — always observant but hesitant in what he calls “participating” in the real world. That is until he befriends Patrick (Ezra Miller), an excitable queer senior who takes Charlie under his wing, and his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson), a pretty girl-next-door whom Charlie gets immediately attracted to. We follow him as he navigates a complex terrain of emotions that come with adolescence, except that for the most part he’s directionless and lets his two newfound friends, along with his English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), lead the way. Together, they go through the teenage experience — they exchange The Smiths songs, party, do drugs, reenact The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But the movie also takes some dark, melodramatic turns as it deals with the repercussions of, among other things, teen suicide and homophobia.
The movie’s main cast is, to my surprise, brilliant. Lerman in particular showed an astute restraint in his performance, a far cry from his kiddy turn in Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. Playing Charlie demanded a believable mix of vulnerability and likability to serve as our conduit to the nostalgia of our youths, and at his best, his portrayal can get under your skin and evoke emotions and memories that you thought you’ve left behind. Miller is equally impressive. He doesn’t fall into the trap of simply being the gay best friend but instead infuses his character with a charming dose of pizzazz and vigorous spirit. And finally, weird American accent aside, Watson is acceptable enough as Sam, perhaps the weakest of the three lead performances. It is easy enough to project whatever ideal we had of the perfect high school girlfriend because of a certain blankness in her delivery of that character, although whether or not it was intentional from her part is unknown.
As far as fantasized depictions of teenage life goes, this is a pretty good movie that will find its following. If I have one main reservation, its with the movie’s bumper-sticker mantra derived from one of the oft-quoted lines from the book: We accept the love we think we deserve. It’s catchy enough to seem reasonable, but I don’t agree with the sentiment of conveniently blaming someone’s low self-worth if they find themselves in an abusive or otherwise crappy relationship. Love is much more complicated than that. But hey, what do I know. I’m also just a wallflower.